House Budget Bills Face Senate Fight
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
House passage early yesterday of major budget-cutting legislation and authority to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness touched off fierce resistance in the Senate, where Democrats and moderate Republicans threaten to derail the legislation over concerns about the impact on the poor and the environment.
In an unusual pre-dawn vote yesterday, the House narrowly passed a broad five-year budget plan to cut spending on Medicaid, student loans and other entitlement programs by $39.7 billion. That 212 to 206 vote, concluded at 6:07 a.m., came one hour and three minutes after the House voted 308 to 106 on a 2006 defense spending bill that included a provision opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a move long sought by President Bush, energy companies and Republican leaders.
Senate leaders were trying to bring the two bills to a final vote tomorrow, but lawmakers warn that passage is far from certain.
Health policy experts, makers of medical devices, labor unions and AARP -- the powerful seniors lobby -- came out in force against the budget-cutting measure as details emerged on the higher health care costs the bill would push on the poor, new welfare-to-work requirements imposed on the states, and higher hurdles the legislation would create for seniors seeking assistance for long-term health care.
"Congress should know that if the [budget-cutting] conference agreement becomes law, the AARP and its more than 36 million members will work tirelessly to hold those accountable for passing such irresponsible policy," announced David Sloan, AARP's managing director of government relations and advocacy.
Three Republican moderates, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), said they will oppose the measure, and Senate Republican leaders expect a fourth, Mike DeWine (Ohio), to join them. GOP leaders notified the office of Vice President Cheney yesterday that his vote may be needed to break a potential tie.
Lawmakers both for and against Arctic oil drilling also maneuvered furiously to line up votes on parliamentary moves to strip the provision from the must-pass spending measure, which would fund the military, war-fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to combat avian flu, and $29 billion in aid for hurricane-ravaged states. The hurricane relief includes money to repair levees, spur economic development and rebuild badly damaged roads in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Drilling opponents will try first to strip the ANWR provision by asserting that it flouts Senate rules against unrelated legislation on spending bills. If that fails, members from both parties are raising the politically risky prospect of a filibuster that would take 60 votes to break.
The budget measure, more than 700 pages long, would change federal health care, student loan programs, pension insurance and dozens of other programs to try to curb the growth of federal entitlement spending that rises automatically according to set funding formulas. The bill marks the first time in nearly a decade that Congress has tackled such an effort, and it has been a struggle, with deals cut throughout the last week to secure majority support.
House Republican leaders -- rushing to get their work done before members bolted for a long end-of-year recess yesterday -- had to work through the weekend and all night Sunday to round up their own votes. Nearly $2 billion of budgetary savings had to be scrapped in the dead of night to meet the demands of Ohio Republicans seeking to protect a manufacturer of medical oxygen tanks, Invacare Corp. of Elyria, Ohio, from one Medicare cut.
Leaders also had to beat back a bipartisan parliamentary maneuver to scuttle the defense spending bill over the Arctic drilling provision. The effort to keep the bill off the House floor by defeating the rule for its debate garnered 21 Republican votes, more than enough to defeat the rule.
But Republican leaders were saved from an embarrassing defeat by the 16 Democrats who broke with their party and voted with Republicans at 4:10 a.m. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who has excoriated fellow Democrats for missing tough votes, did not cast his ballot on the measure, nor was he present when the budget narrowly passed. Spokeswoman Kathleen Connery said Emanuel had a family obligation.